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Organization at home in rehabbed Greater Belhaven bungalow

New state headquarters fits into The Nature Conservancy’s mission

The Nature Conservancy recently celebrated the opening of its new state headquarters, located in a restored, historic bungalow in Jackson’s Greater Belhaven neighborhood.
The non-profit, international organization, begun in 1951, has operated in Mississippi for many years, but only since 1989 as a state chapter. This is the conservancy’s third move in Jackson, and marks a return to the downtown area.

“We are excited to be based in Belhaven, where interest in preservation and beautification is a strong part of the community ethic,” said Robbie Fisher, state director for the Mississippi Chapter.

Fisher says the preservation of old homes, which in turn preserves neighborhoods and communities, fits well with the mission of the Nature Conservancy, which is to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive.

That mission is alive and well in the Magnolia State, where five offices are involved in numerous and varied projects, mostly in partnership with other like-minded organizations.

Northeast Mississippi
and the Buttahatchee River

In Northeast Mississippi, the Nature Conservancy has an office in Tupelo where conservation program director Matthew Miller is working on the Buttahatchee River project. The river flows from the hill country of Northwest Alabama southwest into Mississippi where it becomes a part of the Tombigbee River, eventually reaching the Gulf of Mexico in Mobile Bay, one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world.

The Buttahatchee is important to the Conservancy because it is a wild river with a large diversity of freshwater mussels and fish, and has good overall water quality.
The Conservancy is involved in a collaborative effort involving agencies in both Mississippi and Alabama to develop a long-term conservation plan for the river.

“We started by developing a plan for a unique 50-acre parcel of land on the river,” Miller said. “That project has been a great success and we are now in the second phase, which is to do a biological inventory of the site, focusing on plant and bird life.”

The Conservancy is also acting as the lead organization to bridge the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management on a larger project on the river involving water quality practices.

“We are developing a comprehensive, four-phase watershed area plan for the river basin,” Miller said.

The plan is to first scientifically assess the river, then create a bi-state group of interested parties to develop conservation strategies. Thirdly, the Nature Conservancy will assist other agencies in their river conservation efforts and work to educate the populace about those efforts. The final phase, says Miller, will be to determine how their efforts can be monitored for success and how that success can be relayed to others.

The Lower Delta Partnership

In the Mississippi Delta, the Nature Conservancy is working with a partnership that promotes environmental restoration and economic revitalization of the lower Delta. The conservancy is a founding member of the Lower Delta Partnership, which is a coalition of more than 30 state, federal, non-profit and corporate members, as well as individual land owners. The Partnership works pro-actively with land owners interested in non-traditional uses for their land.

“Our aim is not to replace traditional agriculture,” said Fisher, “but for marginal crop lands, which frequently flood, we are encouraging owners to look at either governmental or private incentive programs that encourage reforestation.”

Fisher said the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) has been so popular that in some Mississippi Delta counties, the acreage caps have already been met.

“There is a real demand, as the WRP essentially pays farmers a per acre amount to reforest land that had been previously cleared,” she said. “Not every piece of land qualifies, but the point is that in the lower Delta, people who own marginal crop lands are very interested in looking at alternatives to traditional agriculture, whether that means selling those lands, reforesting the land or starting a business on that land, such as a hunting club.”

The partnership also works to help communities devise ways to capitalize on the potential economic dollars that could be brought into the area if reforested areas were to attract eco-tourists or hunters.

Nature and the DoD — an unlikely duo?

In the piney woods of South Mississippi in Camp Shelby, the largest state-owned and operated field training site in the United States, seven Nature Conservancy scientists work in close partnership with the Mississippi Military Department and the U.S. Department of Defense to study threatened and endangered species issues.

The military is subject to federal endangered species laws, so it utilizes the expertise of the Nature Conservancy to help it protect the rare plants and animals at Camp Shelby, while still accomplishing its primary mission of training troops.

Camp Shelby is home to the endangered gopher tortoise, as well as an endangered plant species known as the Louisiana Quillwort.

Throughout the year, thousands of troops from all branches of the United States military train at the camp.

Old Fort Bayou Mitigation Bank

In coastal Mississippi, the Nature Conservancy operates an office in Ocean Springs where the staff works closely with the Old Fort Bayou Mitigation Bank property, a 2,000-acre tract purchased in 1996 that is being restored to wet prairie and wet pine savannah in a unique way.

Under the Federal Clean Water Act, if a developer impacts wetlands of a certain size, he must mitigate for the destruction of or impact to the wetlands. Through the Old Fort Bayou Mitigation Bank, the Nature Conservancy offers a tempting alternative: the developer can purchase mitigation credits to offset the development project’s damage to wetlands. In return, the Nature Conservancy provides secure land management in perpetuity.

“It is all a matter of specialties,” said George Ramseur, director of restoration and management for the organization’s Ocean Springs office. “This is our core business — it’s what we are all about and what we have been doing for more than 50 years. Rather than someone trying to buy, restore and maintain a couple of acres, which is a pretty average permit requirement, he can simply buy a couple of credit’s worth of mitigation or restoration in our project.”

Mike’s Island: a refuge for seals?

Purchased in July 2003, Mike’s Island, a 2,775-acre property on the Pearl River in Hancock County, is one of the conservancy’s more ambitious acquisition and restoration projects to date. The island contains a critical part of a watershed that supports habitat for endangered animals such as the Gulf sturgeon, and is a crucial nesting area for the swallow-tailed kite and other migratory birds. Clear-cutting and sand and gravel mining have damaged the island, but the Conservancy has found a partner that’s equally as interested in restoring the land, but for different reasons.

“We’re working with the U.S. Navy, which is very interested in this site for its amphibious Navy Seal training operations,” Fisher said. “We are working cooperatively to try to find commonalities between our desire to see the property restored and maintained and the Navy’s desire to see it in a very natural state so as to simulate the best kind of training opportunities for its Seals.”

Numerous other efforts

Those are but a few of the ambitious undertakings of the Nature Conservancy’s Mississippi chapter, which is responsible for raising all the revenue for the money it spends in the state.

The chapter’s Merrill office, near Lucedale, remains actively involved in managing some 7,000 acres owned by the Conservancy at the upper Pascagoula River, an area the Nature Conservancy has historically been involved in protecting since before the Mississippi chapter was formed.

The Conservancy is also involved in an oyster restoration project on the Bay of St. Louis in Hancock County in partnership with the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.

The Nature Conservancy owns a tiny preserve, a mere six acres, in Lee County near Tupelo that is home to the world’s largest population of a globally-endangered plant species called Apios Priceana or Price’s Potato Bean. A “small but critical” project, Fisher says.

“Besides protecting important places where endangered species live, we are doing so much more,” she continued. “There are three prongs to a healthy community: environment, economy and culture. Because of that, we are doing a lot of things like working with partners on sustainable development issues.

“We also are looking at eco-tourism or nature tourism as a way to encourage economic development, but in a way that has low environmental impact with a high-dollar return.”

The Nature Conservancy owns approximately 12,000 acres throughout Mississippi, and since the 1960s has worked with the state to directly preserve and protect more than 129,000 acres of natural areas and habitat.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Mara Hartmann at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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